CUNY by the People, for the People

By Rachel J. Chapman and Conor Tomás Reed.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the founders of the progressive public school movement envisioned a public education system that recognizes the humanity of each student, prepares them for democratic participation in life, and advocates their fullest potential for the greater good. Education was to be by the people and for the people, to the benefit of all. However, today, democratic participation is nearly absent in the pedagogy, policy, and practices of public education, including here in the City University of New York and the Graduate Center. Neoliberal pressure to transform public education into a corporate model for maximum profit overwhelmingly prioritizes austerity policies over decades of research, activism, and public outcry for locally controlled and equitably resourced democratic education. The philosophy of “do more with less” has become the accepted norm, with states continually slashing millions of dollars from public higher education, leaving students to take on nearly fifty percent of the operating costs, over $1 trillion in loans.

This past year at the GC, we’ve suffered $4.5 million in cuts due to the vetoed Maintenance of Effort (MOE) Bill by Governor Cuomo, and $2.5 million more will be cut in the next academic year. Hiring searches have been cancelled, full-time vacant positions continue to go unfilled, fellowship stipends remain well below the living wage, and the “adjunctification” of higher education deepens as graduate students take on additional classes when low-wage, high-stress adjunct teaching doesn’t pay the bills. With abiding energies from #BlackLivesMatter and the movement for economic equity for the “99%” both on and off campuses, GC students, faculty, and staff have met with President Robinson and Provost Lennihan over a dozen times to demand how and why certain programs felt these budget cuts more strongly than others. Meanwhile, we’ve pressured the administration to remedy the appalling state of diversity (in all its forms) at the Graduate Center. “Let us do our jobs” has been their standard response, offering little clarity, rationale, transparency, or levels of professional courtesy to us. And when we ask for more student and faculty participation in the budgeting process, we are told we have too many meetings to attend as it is.

When pressed at his April 19 Office Hour as to why in the wake of such severe cuts, CUNY administrators and trustees make ten to twenty times more than GC fellows and adjuncts, President Robinson scoffed, “it would be grotesque to even consider cutting such salaries.” It’s no wonder, then, that the first few sentences of CUNY’s mission statement reads:

“The Legislature intends that The City University of New York should be maintained as an independent system of higher education governed by its own Board of Trustees responsible for the governance, maintenance and development of both senior and community college units of The City University.”

Out of sixteen Trustee members, not one is an undergraduate student, only one is a former educator, and one is a graduate student, while the rest come from the corporate business sector, appointed by Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio, with little or no input from the student and public community. In 2011, after the Board of Trustees voted to increase tuition by thirty percent, they voted in 2012, 2013 and again in 2015 to increase top CUNY administrator salaries by forty-one to fifty percent. The two most recent Cuomo appointees to the Board were previous city mayoral candidates: Bill Thompson serves on the Siebert Brandford Shank investment banking firm, while Francisco Ferrer is the Vice-Chairperson of the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) and serves on the Mercury Public Affairs, LLC. public strategy firm.

Apparently deciding how to “do more with less” is so difficult that it requires upwards of fifty percent pay increases for CUNY administrators, while seventy percent of teaching faculty are given minimal pay, resources, and support to teach more students in larger classes. Ironically, administrators reassure us that these shifts move us towards a stronger “CUNY Value,” even as they place a greater burden of instruction, curriculum, and mentorship responsibilities on adjuncts and graduate students, daily campus upkeep on poorly paid staff, and more expensive and scarce course requirements on students, thus starving the already skeletal system of CUNY. Graduate students and adjunct professors worry whether they will be given enough classes to cover their monthly rent, while the list of administrators – and some faculty – making over $200,000 continues to grow at the GC and across CUNY:

Top Ten Paid at the Gradute Center

  1. $556,970: Bill Kelly, Professor, Graduate Center
  2. $349,016: Chase Robinson, President
  3. $324,494: Ayman El Mohandes, Dean, School of Public Health
  4. $268,569: Cathy Davidson, Professor of English, Director of Future Initiatives
  5. $239,147: Terry Huang, Professor of Public Health
  6. $238,266: Jay Golan, Executive Director of GC Foundation, VP for Institutional Advancement
  7. $218,952: Talal Asad, Professor of Anthropology
  8. $217,223: Sebastian Persico, Senior VP for Finance and Administration
  9. $205,495: Ruth Milkman, Professor of Sociology
  10. $205,426: Herman Bennett, Professor of History

Top Ten Paid at CUNY

  1. $556,970: Bill Kelly, Professor, Graduate Center
  2. $546,394: Matthew Goldstein, Retired Chancellor
  3. $490,568: James Milliken, Chancellor
  4. $402,943: Lisa Coico, President, City College
  5. $377,544: Felix Matos Rodriguez, President, Queens College
  6. $349,016: Chase Robinson, President, Graduate Center
  7. $325,598: Jennifer Raab, President, Hunter College
  8. $324,494: Ayman El Mohandes, Dean, School of Public Health
  9. $313,574: Michelle Anderson, Dean, School of Law
  10. $308,074: Kevin Gardner, Professor of Chemistry, City College

Those who have been at the GC for only a few years may be surprised to see one of our English professors, Bill Kelly, listed as the highest-paid CUNY employee. Bill Kelly served as the GC Provost (1998-2005) and President (2005-2013) before moving onto a one-year interim role as CUNY Chancellor, before our current Chancellor, James Milliken, took over. While well-liked among some in the GC community, Kelly proved his mettle to the Board of Trustees in February 2013 when he asserted that the Graduate Center would not be a “roach motel” in which students “check in and don’t check out.” In response, almost twenty GC students co-wrote an open letter to Kelly that concluded: “We are not pests to be trapped and poisoned. We are workers and students. CUNY is our workplace and our intellectual home, and we will not stand idly by to watch it dismantled by neoliberal ‘reformers’ who would eagerly turn it into an elite, corporatized institution for a privileged few.” (https://gcadvocate.com/2013/02/11/my-phd-program-is-not-a-roach-motel/)

The second highest-paid CUNY employee, retired former Chancellor Matthew Goldstein (1999-2013), doesn’t even work here any longer. Goldstein draws an “Emeritus Chancellor” post-retirement salary for five years while continuing to chair JP Morgan Mutual Funds – the same Chancellor who presided over the dismantling of Open Admissions, countless budget cuts and tuition increases, and heightened police attacks on campus dissent. This record of our past and current GC Presidents and CUNY Chancellors shows an emerging trend in the concentrations of power at CUNY and in New York City’s cultural, economic, and political institutions: those who oversee worsening austerity, roll-backs on student and worker diversity, and selective “merit-based” (read culturally biased tokenizing) aid are rewarded with a seat at the table of the one percent.

In a resounding rebuttal of these conditions, ninety-two percent of CUNY academic workers in the Professional Staff Congress (PSC) say “STRIKE!” Out of over ten thousand PSC members across CUNY who voted between May 2 and 11, including seventy percent of GC PSC members, ninety-two percent support our union authorizing a strike to settle a six-year contract battle with CUNY management. The union has newly activated several hundred members in rallies, marches, strike authorization tablings, phone-banking, department rap sessions, email updates, and one-on-one outreach to co-workers. While the PSC leadership has announced that it would not consider preparing for a strike until the fall, the strike authorization vote will potentially pressure a contract to be settled by the summer. This landslide vote, combined with the defeat of the five-year annual tuition increase and a half-billion dollar cut in state funding, show how the past academic year culminated in several victories for the CUNY movement that were by no means foreseeable without the organizing efforts of GC masters and doctoral students, faculty, HEOs, CLTs, and librarians in the PSC, as well as hundreds more unionized campus workers in DC37, International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, SEIU, and Teamsters.

To be sure, the PSC strike mobilization doesn’t necessarily ensure a well-rounded contract campaign for all. Despite the potential for a robust organizing campaign from below, many rank-and-file PSC adjuncts are still out of the loop or formally disempowered, while strategic decision-making is bottlenecked at the top. In turn, this becomes reflected in the contract’s priorities. Most in the union leadership and bargaining team do not consistently push for better working conditions for long-time adjuncts and graduate students. A pay raise across the board would maintain the huge rift in wage disparity between the seventy percent adjunct faculty and the thirty percent tenured/tenure-track faculty – a majority who make $3,000 per class, a minority who make over $200,000 per year, and all those in between. A redistributive wage demand can and should be implemented by the bargaining team; wealthier faculty should use their institutional leverage to help end the two-tier wage system to the benefit of the majority of their fellow PSC members. Furthermore, broader participation by everyone in the PSC can prepare us to vote down any paltry contracts from CUNY management or our own union leadership.

How can we transform CUNY from a starving skeleton run by greedy private interests towards a fully funded and more democratic education system? What do we need to get back to a free CUNY with open admissions and free tuition as well as faculty evaluations based on student-centered pedagogy and a living wage and secure workplace for all, especially our adjuncts? To start, how about student/faculty/staff-elected Chancellors, College Presidents, and Provosts; a Board of Trustees with majority student and community membership; and monthly open community meetings with administrators? Or joint social justice campaigns between the PSC, other unions in CUNY, neighborhood organizations as well as student unions that welcome direct and creative democratic actions, dedicated to a more equitable university and city? The possibilities are endless and require the voices of students and academic workers like yours to be at the forefront! What do you think is needed for a more democratic CUNY? We want to know: share your comments with us gcstudentsassembly@gmail.com!

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